In 1935, Alexander Alekhine, the World Champion, defended the title against Max Euwe in a match that many thought would be a walk-over. Instead, Euwe produced one of the greatest upsets in chess history.

This is the third article in a series about the greatest World Championships ever. The first can be found here and the second here.

World Championship matches in the first half of the 20th century were different than they are now. The biggest difference was that there was no official qualification process. Instead, the World Champion could choose his opponent, usually based on whether the challenger could raise enough money.

The matches were much longer and the pre-match preparation was not as extensive or intensive. Openings were analyzed for the first 15 moves, or less, which led to more innovative play during the games and more mistakes. Players generally took bigger risks, which made the games more exciting.

All these factors certainly contributed to making the 1935 match between Alexander Alekhine and Max Euwe one of the best ever.

Before the match, the ex-World Champion, José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, was regarded as the most worthy challenger to Alekhine. Some argued that Alekhine, who had beaten Capablanca in 1927 to win the title, went out of his way to avoid a rematch. Instead, Alekhine, a Russian-born grandmaster who had settled in France after the Russian Revolution, had played and completely dominated two matches with Efim Bogoljubov in 1929 and 1934. Bogoljubov, a Russian-born German grandmaster, was clearly one of the best players in the world, but he had always struggled against Alekhine.

Euwe, who was Dutch, certainly did not seem like the most dangerous challenger for the flamboyant Alekhine. A few years earlier, Euwe had announced that he was going to quit playing chess professionally and focus on teaching mathematics. While Euwe was contemplating early retirement, Alekhine was dominating many of the events in which he was playing, rarely losing even a game. So Alekhine’s choice of Euwe was seen by many as similar to his earlier choice of Bogoljubov – an overmatched opponent that Alekhine felt very confident of beating.

Such an assessment was a bit unfair. While Alekhine had a career edge against Euwe, Euwe had beaten Alekhine more than he had lost to him in the years before the match. The most likely reason that Alekhine chose to play Euwe was economic - it was difficult to find an opponent who could raise the stakes to play. Indeed, while Euwe was successful in finding backers, he actually earned no prize money for playing the match!

In the following remarkable video, Euwe and Hans Hollander talk in Dutch about Euwe’s chances in the upcoming match, before they are joined by Capablanca, who then gives his opinion in English about the two players. 

Once Euwe decided to play for the title, he dedicated himself to preparing for it. His methodic preparation, which is now commonplace, had perhaps never before been done and was clearly ahead of its time. Despite the very limited resources – this was, after all, decades before computers or the Internet — Euwe realized the advantage of studying certain types of openings in depth. The evidence for this is that he more or less stuck to a few openings throughout the match while Alekhine varied his choices quite regularly, which was the common practice in those days.

The match was to be a best-of-30 games, played in 13 different cities, so Euwe decided that he needed to be physically fit and entered a training regime specifically to improve his stamina. This was perhaps one of the decisive elements in the match’s outcome.

I can’t think of many other matches where it seemed impossible to say at which point it was clear that one player was going to win. With hindsight, people have often blamed Alekhine’s excessive drinking and overconfidence as reasons that destined him to fail. But Alekhine himself never made that claim. And, looking at the games, it doesn’t look like Alekhine played any worse than usual. 

Alekhine started the match with a nice win with White, demonstrating his tactical prowess. Euwe hit back immediately in Game 2, using his preparation in the opening, specifically Qb3 against the Grunfeld Defense. In Game 3, Alekhine again bamboozled Euwe with aggressive play right from the start.

In Game 4, Alekhine took apart Euwe’s preparation in the Grunfeld with some brilliant tactics:

Euwe, Max vs. Alekhine, Alexander
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 4 | 10 Oct 1935 | ECO: D81 | 0-1
15. Ne2 Black had played the opening in a somewhat anti positional way, even taking into account when this match was played, and he has allowed himself to be saddled with a backward pawn on c6. But Alekhine more than makes up for it with his very aggressive plan. White is forced to trade his light-squared bishop. Yes, he wins a pawn, but his King is stuck in the center for a bit.
15... c5! 16. Bxa6 Qxa6 17. Nxc5 Qb5 18. Nf4 The move is natural enough, but it places the knight on a really awkward square.
18. e4! Was perhaps the best move. It prevents Bd5 or Bf5, and it is no longer so easy for Black to find a way to break through.  )
18... Bg4 19. f3 e5! 20. Nfd3 exd4! This was a difficult move to foresee when playing Bg4 because it is hard to calculate all the possible outcomes. Alekhine probably trusted his intuition once he realized that the White king would be stuck in the center.
20... e4 would have been a way to avoid the sacrifice but White would probably be okay.  )
21. fxg4 dxe3 22. Bxe3 Nxg4 23. Bf4
23. Bd2 Rxc5! 24. Nxc5 Re8+  )
23... Bc3+ 24. Rd2
24. Kf1 Rxc5  )
24... Rxc5 25. Nxc5 Qxc5
25... Re8+ was perhaps even stronger, but the endgame Alekhine steers for is also quite unpleasant for White.  )
26. Bxb8 Qe7+ 27. Kd1 Ne3+ 28. Kc1 Nxc2 29. Rxc2 This is still not an easy position for Black to win. Alekhine shows great technique to keep up the pressure.
29... h5 The idea behind this move is to create an extra square on h7 for the Black king. Alekhine is not in a hurry to do much on the queenside.
30. Rd1 Bg7 31. h3 a5! The key plan. The threats on the queenside are too much for White.
32. Bf4 Qe4 33. Bc7 Qe3+ 34. Kb1 a4! 35. bxa4 b3 36. axb3 Qxb3+ 37. Kc1 Bh6+ Now it is all but over.
38. Rdd2 Qxa4 39. Be5 Kh7 40. Bc3 Qb5 41. Bd4 Qe2 42. g4 Qe1+ 43. Kb2 Bxd2 44. Rc8 Bc1+

A couple of relatively calm, but fighting draws followed, and then, Alekhine once again produced an erratic, but brilliant attack:

Alekhine, Alexander vs. Euwe, Max
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 7 | 17 Oct 1935 | ECO: C15 | 1-0
Nc6 It seems like a perfectly normal position so far, but Alekhine starts playing in his unusual aggressive style and the situation soon becomes complicated.
7. g4!? Probably not the best move objectively, but it rattles Euwe.
7... b6 This doesn't challenge Alekhine's idea at all so g4 seems perfectly justified. Perhaps e5 would have made the position more difficult for White.
8. Bg2 Bb7 9. c3 Nf6 10. N2g3 A benefit of having the pawn on g4!
10... O-O 11. g5 Nxe4 12. Nxe4 Kh8 White doesn't really seem to have many attacking chances without having developed completely, but Alekhine pushes ahead with
13. Qh5 And Euwe becomes intimidated. He tries to simplify the position to avoid the complications, but he overlooks a nice tactical resource. Black's idea is to play f5, after which he would be doing just fine.
13... Qe8? 14. Nf6! Bxf6
14... gxf6 15. gxf6 Bxf6 16. Be4! and Qh7 next.  )
15. gxf6 gxf6 16. Qh4! Qd8 It may have been that Euwe missed Nf6 in his calculations before playing Qe8 and thought the position was fine for Black. Superficially it looks okay for Black, but after
17. Bf4! A slow and deliberate move. When attacking, playing slow developing moves in one of the hardest things to do. Black's position is already very difficult and Euwe isn't able to withstand the pressure.
17... e5
17... f5 18. Qxd8 Nxd8 19. Bxb7 Nxb7 20. Bxc7 was probably only a little better for White, so that is what Euwe should have played.  )
18. Bg3 f5 19. dxe5 Rg8 20. Bf3 Not the most accurate move, but it is good enough as Black's position is still quite difficult.
20... Qd3 21. Be2 Qe4
21... Qc2! Retaining the option of playing Nd4 was the best try for Black. The position remains insanely complicated, but I would definitely prefer to be White.  )
22. Qxe4 fxe4 23. Bh4 White just has a big advantage.
23... h6 24. O-O-O Rae8 25. Bf6+ Kh7 26. f4 exf3 27. Bxf3 Na5 28. Bxb7 Nxb7 29. Rd7 Nc5 30. Rxf7+ Kg6 31. Rxc7 Nd3+ 32. Kb1 Kf5 33. Rd1 Nxe5 34. Rf1+ Ke4 35. Rxa7 Nc4 36. Rd7 Ke3 37. Re1+ Kf3 38. Rxe8 Rxe8 39. Rd4 Ne3 40. Rh4

Alekhine had managed to consistently put pressure on Euwe and already led by three points. Euwe’s deep preparation in the opening seemed to not have much effect against Alekhine’s creativity. But Alekhine probably lacked confidence in his openings as he continued to vary them, while Euwe stuck to what he had studied.

Euwe won Game 8 after a long endgame arising from a Slav Defense. Alekhine immediately struck back by winning another crazy tactical game, this time arising out of a French Defense. In Game 10, Euwe used a similar setup to Game 8 and won convincingly.

Alekhine, who had White in Game 11, played more strategically, but he was unable to dent Euwe’s defense and the game ended in a draw. In Game 12, Alekhine switched back to the Grunfeld and Euwe stuck to his Qb3 line. Alekhine played too aggressively early on and was duly punished. In Game 13, though Euwe had Black, he was the aggressor and Alekhine barely escaped with a draw. Then in Game 14, Euwe conducted a beautiful attack to equalize the score in the match at seven points apiece:

Euwe, Max vs. Alekhine, Alexander
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 14 | 02 Nov 1935 | ECO: D82 | 1-0
Nh5 Nh5 - Black's previous move has rarely been played, and for good reason. Alekhine continued to play recklessly and, while that worked quite well when he had White, with Black it was not such a good strategy.
5. Be5! f6 6. Bg3 Now the knight on h5 doesn't have many places to go too. But rather than playing Nxg3 quickly, he should have tried to delay that move as long as possible.
6... Nxg3 7. hxg3 The open h-file doesn't seem like a big problem for Black, yet.
7... c6 8. e3 Bg7 9. Bd3! O-O Alekhine obviously saw
10. Rxh7! but he was probably hoping that he could create some counterplay in the center. It turns out that his counterplay is too slow:
10... f5
10... Kxh7 11. Qh5+ Kg8 12. Bxg6 and the only way to avoid mate on h7 is go give up the rook on f8.  )
11. Rh1 e5 12. dxe5! A precise move that will help White develop quickly:
12... Bxe5 13. Nf3 Bxc3+
13... Bg7 14. Qb3 Would also be very unpleasant for Black.  )
14. bxc3 Qf6 15. cxd5 Qxc3+ 16. Kf1 White's king is perfectly safe. The position should be an easy win for White, but it was still fun to see how Euwe converted it. Certainly it wasn't the cleanest kill:
16... Qf6 17. Rc1 cxd5 18. Rc7 Nd7 19. Bb5 Qd6 20. Rc4 Completely unnecessary, but it is an aesthetically pleasing maneuver! Simply Qc1 was perfectly good, too.
20... Nf6 21. Rch4 Qc5 22. Ba4 Qc3 23. Ng5 Kg7 24. Nh7 Rd8 25. Nxf6 Kxf6 26. Rh7 Be6 27. R1h6 Bf7 28. Kg1 Rg8 29. g4 Rg7 30. gxf5 Rxh7 31. Rxh7 gxf5 32. Bb3 Qe5 33. Qf3 Rc8 34. g4 Bg6 35. Rxb7 Qa1+ 36. Kg2 Rh8 37. g5+ Kxg5 38. Qf4+ Kf6 39. Qd6+ Kg5 40. f4+ Kh6 41. Qe7

Alekhine was now quite shaken. He had lost four games in a row with Black. He decided that he needed to change his style of play. He apparently told Emanuel Lasker, the former World Champion, “I shall play more solidly. More Logic. Less Passion.” He was true to his words. In the next game, he pressed for 60 moves with White before drawing. And in Game 16, he outplayed Euwe in a long endgame and won to retake the lead.

Alekhine continued to play solidly, which led to a few interesting, and hard fought draws. Then Euwe slipped up in Game 19 and Alekhine took a two-point lead.

The next game was perhaps one of the most crucial ones in the match. Euwe used a beautiful positional idea to win:

Euwe, Max vs. Alekhine, Alexander
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 20 | 16 Nov 1935 | ECO: D17 | 1-0
Ra6 The position doesn't look bad for Black and Alekhine probably had high hopes that he could draw it. But Euwe finds a simple but remarkably effective plan:
30. Ra2! Now Bb5 does not work because now after xcb5 the rook on a2 will be defended! Black can only wait while White improves his position on the kingside.
30... Ke7 31. f4 gxf4 32. gxf4 Black can't move his rook so he continues to shuffle his king, but he soon runs out of useful moves.
32... Kf6 33. e4 g5?! 34. f5 h5 35. h4! gxh4
35... g4 36. Kf2 Ke5 37. Kg3 And it is impossible to prevent Kf4 as Black can't move his rook.  )
36. Kh2 Kg5 37. Kh3 Ra5 38. Bb7 Kf6 39. Bd5 Kg5 40. Bb7 Kf6 41. Bc8

Alekhine was again shaken and in the next game he relapsed into his aggressive style. It backfired, he lost and the match score was equal again.

Alekhine regained control of himself and played more solidly for a few games. In Game 24, he came really close to beating Euwe before letting him escape in what was a winning endgame. After this disappointment, Alekhine lashed out with desperate attack in Game 25, which was easily repulsed by Euwe. Euwe won and was again up a point.

Game 26 was another beautiful effort by Euwe. This time, instead of exquisite positional chess, Euwe showed a flashier side:

Euwe, Max vs. Alekhine, Alexander
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 26 | 03 Dec 1935 | ECO: A90 | 1-0
Bf6 So far, the position seems to be fairly typical of one arising out of an opening beginning with 1. d4.
21. Nxf5!
21. Bxf6 Nxf6  )
21... Bxc3 22. Nxd6 Qb8 23. Nxe4 It is not easy to evaluate this position. White has three impressive pawns but Blacks extra piece could prove useful particularly if he can attack the White king.
23... Bf6 24. Nd2 g5! The correct plan to create counterplay. It would have been easy for White to panic at this point, particularly against a player noted for his attacking abilities, but Euwe calmly continues with his central plan:
25. e4 gxf4 26. gxf4 Bd4 27. e5 Perhaps Black should have returned the piece by playing Nxe5 and tried to find some practical counterplay. It is understandable if this did not look appealing to Alekhine.
27... Qe8 28. e6 Rg8 29. Nf3 Qg6 30. Rg1! Bxg1 31. Rxg1 Qf6 32. Ng5! Rg7 33. exd7 Rxd7
33... Qxf4 34. Qc3! Qd4 35. Qe1! Rxd7 36. Ne6 Incredibly, the Black queen does not have many good squares.
36... Qf6 37. Rf1! Qxb2 38. Rf2 and the queen has to leave the crucial a1 - h8 diagonal, after which Black gets mated quickly:
38... Qb4 39. Qe5+ Kg8 40. Rg2+  )
34. Qe3 Black still has some drawing chances, but, at best, it is extremely to hold a draw.
34... Re7 35. Ne6 Rf8 36. Qe5 Qxe5 37. fxe5 Rf5
37... Rxe6 38. dxe6 Re8 39. Rg5 Rxe6 40. Kg2 And Black would suffer in a joyless endgame.  )
38. Re1! The endgame remains hard for Black.
38... h6 39. Nd8! Rf2 40. e6 Rd2 41. Nc6 Re8 42. e7 b5 43. Nd8 Kg7 44. Nb7! The knight works perfectly.
44... Kf6 45. Re6+ Kg5 46. Nd6 Rxe7 47. Ne4+

Savielly Tartakower, one of the foremost players and writers on chess, called it the “Pearl of Zandvoort.” (Zandvoort was the Dutch city where this game was played.)

Most people would have thought the match over by now, but in Game 27, Alekhine fought back with a brilliant positional win:

Alekhine, Alexander vs. Euwe, Max
World Championship 16th | Netherlands | Round 27 | 06 Dec 1935 | ECO: C27 | 1-0
Ne6 White is a little better, but it doesn't seem easy to improve his position. Alekhine makes an interesting and counter intuitive decision:
28. Bxe6 Giving up the bishop improves Black's pawn structure! But White's rooks become very active.
28... dxe6 29. Rd7 Rc8 Seeking counterplay seems a better way to defend than passively playing Ra8.
30. Rxa7 Rxc3 31. Ra8+! Forcing the Black king to a passive position.
31... Kh7 32. a4!? Rb3
32... Rc2+ White would not be concerned about the kingside; he would continue:
33. Ke3! Rxg2 34. Ra6 Ra2 35. Kd4 The Black pawns are much harder to advance on the kingside, so I think that White has better chances. It would require a great deal of analysis to know for sure.  )
33. b5 g5 34. Ke2 The king's march to the queenside is unpleasant to deal with.
34... e5 35. Kd2 f6 36. Kc2 Rb4 37. Kc3 Rd4 38. Ra6 Black's queenside is collapsing.
38... Kg6 39. Rxb6 Rxa4 40. Ra6 Rd4 41. b6

In the next game again Alekhine pressed, but couldn’t quite break through Euwe’s solid defense. In Game 29, Alekhine never really got a chance at an advantage with White. In the finale, Euwe once again convincingly demonstrated his superior understanding in the Qb3 line of the Grunfeld to outplay Alekhine. Euwe accepted a draw offer in a winning position to seal the match 15.5 - 14.5. He later commented that perhaps he shouldn’t have accepted the draw offer, but after 30 grueling games, it was understandable.

There have been many close World Championships, but quite often they are filled with draws because both players are trying to avoid risk. The reason is simple: It is extremely hard to come back from a loss in matches with so much at stake. But in this match, both the players repeatedly fought back from unpleasant situations, making it one of the most exciting matches ever.


Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 80 in the world, he is about to start his junior year at Stanford University. He can be found on Twitter at @parimarjan.